Recent Commonplace Entries


“The truth of the matter is, of course, that we have a certain amount of information about famine conditions  . . . and that there is no obligation on us not to make it public. We do not want to make it public, however, because the Soviet government would resent it and our relations with them would be prejudiced.” (Laurence Collier of the Foreign Office, responding to an MP, in 1935, quoted by Anne Applebaum in Red Famine, p 318)

“One of my professors at the University of Chicago once told me that the cultural form democracy had taken root in the US resulted in the inability to countenance any hierarchy based on birth, wealth, merit or intellect, since all implied exclusions of various kinds. Only celebrity was an acceptable basis for hierarchy, since like the lottery it was arbitrary and depended on our whims. Hollywood, therefore, was the model for all US professions and institutions, from the university to the presidency. Perhaps we have all become Americans in this sense.” (Faisal Devji, in Prospect, April)

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. The promise of history is that we can find the rhymes before it is too late.” (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Greenblatt in How Democracies Die, quoted in TLS review by Krishan Kumar, April 6)

“The irony of history is that had Yugoslavia remained together, it almost certainly would have been in the European Union now, having been well ahead in 1990 of current members Romania and Bulgaria.” (Carl Bildt, former Swedish foreign minister and United Nations special envoy to the Balkans, quoted in NYT, April 11)


“The humanist writings of Isaiah Berlin captured the intellectual spirit of the 1990s. ‘”Ich bin ein Berliner,” I used to say, meaning an Isaiah Berliner,’ Garton Ash wrote in a haunting memoir of his time in East Germany. Now that communism had been routed and Marxist utopias exposed as false, Isaiah Berlin was the perfect antidote to the trendy monistic theories that had ravished academic life for the previous four decades. Berlin, who taught at Oxford and whose life was coeval with the twentieth century, had always defended bourgeois pragmatism and ‘temporizing compromises’ over political experimentation. He loathed geographical, cultural and all other forms of determinism, refusing to consign anyone and anybody to their fate. His views, articulated in articles and lectures over a lifetime, often as a lone academic voice in the wilderness, comprised the perfect synthesis of a measured idealism that was employed both against communism and the notion that freedom and security were only for some people and not for others. His philosophy and the ideal of Central Europe were prefect fits.” (from Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography, pp 8-9)

“America is what it is, Huntington goes on, because it was settled by British Protestants, not by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics. Because America was born Protestant, it did not have to become so, and America’s classical liberalism emerges from this very fact. Dissent, individualism, republicanism ultimately all devolve from Protestantism. ‘While the American Creed is Protestantism without God, the American civil religion is Christianity without Christ.’ But this Creed, Huntington reasons, might be subtly undone by an advancing Hispanic, Catholic, pre-Enlightenment society.’” (from Robert D. Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography, p 337)

“What really makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other kind of dictatorship to rule is that the people are not informed. If everyone always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that no one believes anything at all anymore – and rightly so, because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, have to be ‘re-lied’, so to speak.” (Hannah Arendt, in 1973 interview, according to George Prochnik in NYT review of Thinking Without a Banister, April 15)

“I want to leave this country, which, it dawns on me, is so much like my mother. They are almost the same age, my mother and my motherland. They are both in love with order, both overbearing and protective. They’re prosaic; neither my mother nor my motherland knows anything about the important things in life: the magic of Theater, the power of the English language, love. They’re like the inside of a bus at a rush hour in July: you can’t breathe, you can’t move, and you can’t squeeze your way to the door to get out.” (From Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs, Chapter 18)

“No, because I’ve noticed, in my life as a doctor that the truism is true: People die the way they lived – even the demented and even, somehow, the brain-dead. The brave die bravely; the curious, with curiosity; the optimistic, optimistically. Those who are by nature accepters, accept; those who by nature fight for control die fighting for control, and Ehrenreich is a fighter.” (Victoria Sweet, in review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes, in The Atlantic, May 2018)

“On the other hand, I do and always shall maintain that it is the privilege of the richer but less mentally endowed members of the community to contribute to the upkeep of people like myself.” (Arthur Norris, in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, Chapter 4)

“’Perhaps they’ll put you through the third degree.’

‘Oh, William, how can you say anything so dreadful? You make me feel quite faint.’

‘But, Arthur, surely that would be  . . . I mean, wouldn’t you rather enjoy it?’

Arthur giggled: ‘Ha, ha. Ha, ha. I must say this, William, that even in the darkest hour your humour never fails to restore me  . . . Well, well, perhaps if the examination were to be conducted by Frl. Anni, or some equally charming young lady, I might undergo it with – er – very mixed feelings. Yes.’”

(The author and Mr Norris discussing the latter’s summons to present himself to the Political Police, from Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, Chapter 6)

“Remorse is not for the elderly. When it comes to them, it is not purging or uplifting, but merely degrading and wretched, like a bladder disease.” (from Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, Chapter 15)

“Thomas Jones repeats the story that Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita after witnessing the first successful nuclear weapons test in New Mexico: ‘I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.’ I once had the chance to ask his brother, Frank, who was standing next to him at the time, what Oppie’s actual words were. Frank’s recollection was that he said: ‘I guess it worked’.” (letter from Jeremy Bernstein in London Review of Books, April 26)

“Depressives may simply be judging themselves and the world much more accurately than non-depressed people, and not finding it a pretty place.” (science journalist Kyla Dunn, quoted by William Millar in letter to Literary Review, April)

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